Food crisis looms as fear of coronavirus disrupts supply chain

Citizens complain about shortage of flour at retail shops

Imran Adnan March 27, 2020

LAHORE: Embargos on interprovincial movement and lockdown in the country have badly disrupted supply of essential commodities and lifesaving drugs in the urban centres across Punjab. Traders and transporters have warned authorities to intervene to arrest the crisis in the making.

Speaking to The Express Tribune on Thursday, several citizens complained about non-availability or acute shortage of wheat flour at the retail shops. Muhammad Ali, a resident of Haider Road, Township, highlighted that wheat flour has vanished from retail shops in his neighbourhood.

“Earlier, there was a shortage of disinfectants, hand sanitisers and cleaners but now essential commodities including wheat flour, pulses and spices have started facing supply shortage,” he pointed out.

On the pretext of transport embargos, another citizen Wasif Bashir pointed out, retailers have jacked up prices of everyday use items, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.

“Shopkeepers are exploiting even this emergency situation by selling commodities at asking price and no writ of the government is witnessed as the entire state machinery has fixed its focus on coronavirus,” he maintained.

Pakistan Flour Mills Association (PFMA) central leader Asim Raza Ahmad acknowledged reports of wheat flour shortage in markets and highlighted that flour milling industry supplies around 750,000 bags of 20 kilogrammes in normal days but the industry has increased supply to a million bags owing to panic buying in all urban areas. The industry is gearing up to bring wheat flour supply to 1.2 million bags from coming week to meet the increased demand.

Former PFMA chairman Khaleeq Arshad said wheat flour shortage was the result of lockdown, disruption in transport and a ban on transportation of new wheat crop to other provinces by Sindh government. The issue of wheat ban from Sindh has been taken up by the government and it is being expected that it will be resolved in a couple of days.

Historically, local demand is met by bringing wheat from Sindh during March as Punjab’s crop is harvested around mid-April.

Unfavourable weather conditions and rains have delayed the wheat crop this year. In addition, the provincial food department is deliberately trying to maintain sufficient reserves to deal with any emergency situation. The corporate sector and philanthropists are also buying wheat flour and other essential commodities in bulk for distribution and donation to the needy people.

All these factors are responsible for wheat flour shortage in the market, the PFMA leader pointed out.

A wholesale dealer of Akbari Mandi, Khalid Mahmood, pointed out that owing to lockdown supply lines from all parts of the country have been disrupted, which resulted in dealers of most commodities having stock hardly for a week.

He pointed out that most imported and processed food products and pulses reach Punjab from Sindh.

Similarly, spices are brought from Balochistan. Right now, owing to lockdown, suspension of goods transport has disrupted supply lines of Punjab and caused a shortage of various commodities.

All Pakistan Goods Transport Association General Secretary Nabeel Mahmood Tariq said that following the lockdown orders, police and other law enforcing agencies have launched a crackdown against the goods transporters. “We have several complaints that police and Rangers officials have tortured drivers for bringing vehicles on the roads. All roadside restaurants, rest areas, workshops and puncture repair points have been closed down. All these services are essential to keep goods transport running,” he pointed out.

Tariq highlighted that goods transporters have already taken up the issue with the divisional commissioners and deputy commissioners but are still awaiting its resolution. “Several transporters and drivers have left for their hometowns following the ban on goods transport and now the government and trading community are asking the transporters to provide the vehicles for transportation of goods,” he said.

“There is a lack of coordination among the government agencies, which has disrupted the supply of almost all products,” he lamented and demanded that the government come up with an integrated strategy to deal with the emergency.

In view of the situation, the Lahore deputy commissioner has ordered the assistant commissioners to check flour mills across the provincial capital to improve supply. He also told the officials to take strict action against profiteering and hoarding.

Chief Secretary Punjab Major (retd) Azam Suleman Khan, during a meeting held to review the situation in the province after the lockdown, asked all the divisional commissioners to complete mapping of private hospitals and hotels in districts after taking their administration on board so that the buildings could be used in case of spread of coronavirus.

The meeting took important decisions to ensure the availability of daily-use items and discourage panic buying. The chief secretary said the process of tracing persons who came to the country from abroad has been completed.

Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar contacted Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah and thanked him for sending 100,000 KN-95 masks donated by China to Punjab government.

Buzdar said the Punjab government appreciates the move. “We should help each other in this difficult moment. Our unity and commitment will defeat this fatal disease. We will successfully deal with coronavirus challenge with the cooperation of the people,” he added.

Soaring tally

Two more patients died due to coronavirus in Lahore and Rawalpindi, raising the death toll in Punjab to three.

There are 335 patients of the virus in the province and the government is struggling to treat them in isolation wards.

According to a spokesperson for the Primary and Secondary Health Department, there were 176 patients in Dera Ghazi Khan, 15 in Multan, 83 in Lahore, 21 in Gujrat, 19 in Jhelum, eight in Gujranwala, four in Rawalpindi, three in Faisalabad and one each in Narowal, Mandi Bahauddin, Rahim Yar Khan, Attock, Bahawalnagar and Sargodha.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2020.